Iron is an essential mineral that assists in the transport of oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. We need sufficient oxygen transport to enable our muscles to execute work. Iron is especially important for athletes due to the high work demands placed on their muscles during training and competition.
The body gets iron through the food we consume. An absence of iron-rich foods in the diet can lead to iron deficiency anaemia. Symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia include fatigue, pale skin, reduced exercise capacity and frequent illness.
You may also experience this from low energy availability or inadequate sleep so its useful to have a blood test done to determine if there is a deficiency. A blood test will consider 3 main areas of iron in the body, ferritin which is how iron is stored, trans ferritin which is how iron is transported and the total amount of iron as mineral in your body.
Which athletes needs iron?
Examples of those athletes who need to pay particular attention to their iron levels are:
- Female athletes
- Athletes in their teens/adolescence; young adults
- Those competing in running, endurance and high impact sports
- Those who regularly donate blood
- Athletes who follow a vegetarian diet
Iron sources for your diet
There are two different forms of dietary iron. HAEM IRON which is found in animal sources of food and NON-HAEM iron which is found in plant sources of food. The human body has a preference to absorb haem iron better than it does non haem iron. However, if haem and non haem sources are combined or two to three haem sources are eaten together it enhances the total amount of iron absorbed.
ANIMAL – Haem iron
PLANTS – non haem iron
Maximising iron absorption
As the total amount absorbed can vary so much, rather than just considering the total amount of iron in food, the combination and conditions you consume these iron rich foods in should be considered to enhance maximum absorption.
Below are the food combinations that can impact how well iron is absorbed from food:
- Iron source + tannins (e.g. coffee, tea, wine) = reduced iron absorption
- Iron source + high-calcium (dairy) = reduced iron absorption
- Iron source + vitamin C (e.g. oranges, tomatoes, vegetables) = enhanced iron absorption
- Haem Iron source (animal) + non haem iron source (plant) = enhanced iron absorption
- Iron source (plant) cooked = enhanced iron absorption
What you shouldn’t do
Therefore, try to avoid eating iron-rich foods with dairy, tea and coffee, and avoid taking iron supplements around these foods also.
What you should do
Try to ensure that your iron-rich foods are combined with a source of vitamin C from fruit or vegetables including capsicum, brussel sprouts, dark leafy greens, broccoli, tomatoes, kiwifruit and strawberries.